One of nature’s most mysterious natural phenomena gets unmasked here and now, with these 10 true or false questions from the frequently asked question vault!

We’ve heard hundreds of different questions, facts, and myths from all over the world. From quandaries as simple as “Can you see the Northern Lights in Michigan?”, to more difficult wonders about what they look like on different planets, and why?

Some of these questions we’ve found answers to, while others are still up for discussion as the science develops- but we’ve gathered some of the popular ones here.

What are some questions you’ve heard about the Northern Lights? Did you find an answer? Compare in the comments below!

1. It has to be cold to see Northern Lights

FALSE. In artwork, the aurora is often depicted in snowy, Arctic settings, and connected to cold weather. This is definitely an accurate season for aurora watching, but so is the end of autumn, and the beginning of spring. The reason for this is not the temperature, but rather the light cycle during this half of the year.

From the end of April to the beginning of August, it is too bright in Iceland to see auroral light with the naked eye. Auroras can still happen, but we lack the proper darkness to view them. Because the aurora happens above our weather system the warmer temperatures during this off-season do not affect them.

You will find that cloudless nights and cold temperatures do often go together, which helps with visibility. This is because the Earth absorbs the Sun’s heat during the day, and the clouds insulate the Earth and keep that heat from escaping.

If there are no clouds that night, you’ll find that the temperature is colder. A cloudless night certainly does help us see the show, but it isn’t the catalyst that causes the show to happen. So don’t pass up a September or March aurora hunt!

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Hans Isaacson)

2. All auroras look just like the photos

FALSE. No two auroras are the same, and that goes for the conditions you’re viewing them in as well. Add that to the variety of equipment and information out there, and you’re looking at a whole spectrum of opportunity.

On average, an aurora viewed with the naked eye will not match the photos and films that you see in professional publications. This isn’t necessarily because of photoshop, (it can be), but rather because of how the human eye and nighttime photography work.

In a nutshell, human eyes were not designed to perceive light well in dark places, so we have trouble seeing full color at night. Cameras on the other hand do not have this problem and are able to be manually adjusted to brighten certain aspects of a scene.

This is a type of photography commonly used to create dramatic portraits, realistic theatre or performance shots, and nighttime or astronomical photos. Pictures like these are made by utilizing a higher ISO, a longer shutter speed, and a lower aperture, among other things that are up to the photographer.

Depending on how bright the location is and how strong the aurora is, you may have to adjust in different ways to get the image you want. These types of photos traditionally required fairly advanced gear, but with the advancement of available technology, it is becoming easier to capture more realistic images.

These days, you can snap a shot on a smartphone, or even live film with a camera that allows manual control during filming. This doesn’t mean that the photos that you see are fake, but it can mean that they are processing the low lumen light in a more efficient way than the human eye, creating a more saturated and complete image.

Of course, we can’t speak for every image, so there are always possibilities that additional editing was applied. You may find that your own color processing ability is also at play while aurora watching, and should compare what you’re seeing with those around you. You would be surprised how many people see the same thing in different ways!

can you see the northern lights in michigan
(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Aubree Herrick)

3. You can see the Northern Lights in Michigan

TRUE. One of the most important and popular questions of all time, is if you can see the Northern Lights where you live. We hear these questions often from people in continental Europe and the northern areas of the United States, and the short answer is that it IS possible.

It may not be a regular occurrence, but during a geomagnetic storm or a night of intense auroral activity, the lights can and have crept down that far. There are photos of aurorae visiting uncommon places all over the web, and even just recently an alert from a past storm that they might travel down as far as Maryland.

On average, low-level activity stays close to the pole, which is why it is so common in the Arctic area. But the more geomagnetic activity that there is, the more possible it is for it to appear further away from those poles.

We also now have STEVE to look forward to, which has been reported to occur closer to the equator. So if you’re in Michigan, don’t lose hope! Every now and then Lady Aurora definitely does makes a trip.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Daniel Mirlea)

4. A full moon will make it impossible to see the Northern Lights

FALSE. When looking for the northern lights, it is recommended to remove yourself from all sources of light pollution. This includes manmade sources like streetlights and city lights, but it can also mean organic sources like the Sun, or moonlight.

There is often a lot of chatter about checking the moon phase before you go out, and many forecasting services often include it. But it certainly does not mean you’re 100% out of luck if you find yourself stuck with a full moon.

In my experience, a darker sky can mean easier viewing, but some brightness can be a photographic dream. The light from a fuller moon can provide you with important foreground illumination that can help highlight a landmark, landscape, or even a person.

These shots may require some tinkering to get the correct settings and avoid overexposure, but they can be some of the most beautiful. A full moon can be hard on your eyes, but it definitely isn’t game over for an intrepid hunter.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jonatan Pie)

5. You have to look north to see the Northern Lights

FALSE. Typically, northern lights will occur in a northerly direction more often than not, because few things are further north than the magnetic pole. All of us are more than likely going to be below the activity, which makes this an easy tip to give someone who is trying to orient themselves.

However, if you’re already pretty far north, (which we are), and the geomagnetic activity is high, it is possible that the aurora is not always happening north of you. Activity can manifest overhead, or to the south- or even to the side.

This can depend on the optical illusion of where you are while you watch, what obstacles or landmarks are obscuring your view, and how the activity is manifesting in the sky at that moment.

If you have a wider and further reaching view to the East, you may be more likely to catch a visualization in that direction rather than in a direction where you may be up against a mountain.

At the end of the day, we are small, and the Earth and the Northern Lights are huge, and it can be hard to grasp the visual scale or distance of a celestial event. The lights will always be north to someone, but don’t forget that that person may not be you- and look around! They do have a tendency to sneak up on you when you least expect it.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Thomas Lipke)

6. The Northern Lights and the Southern Lights happen at the same time

TRUE. Over the past 20 years, scientists have been hard at work getting to know the full impact and behavior of geomagnetic activity and also improving the imaging technology that we use to perceive such systems on Earth.

Multiple studies have been conducted over these past two decades that have taught us that the lights are not twins, but siblings. While they do happen simultaneously at both poles, they do not perfectly mirror each other as many have said in the past.

So yes, it is true that they happen at the same time, but currently untrue that they are identical. Stay tuned as further developments surface!

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Mike Lewinski)

7. Ancient people believed that red Northern Lights meant war or danger

TRUE. This is one of the more modern and widely shared folkloric beliefs pertaining to the northern lights. Aurora myths have been held as an oral tradition in many areas around the world, including the Southern Hemisphere.

Due to their striking appearance and occasional intense coloring, one can imagine how the appearance of intense auroral activity may have been frightening to ancient, and some not so ancient, people.

There is even as recently as the 1800s, written proof that multiple cultures linked large instances of northern lights with notable battles and disasters. Read more about the spectrum of beliefs here.

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jonatan Pie)

8. The Northern Lights affect animals

TRUE. This is a question that has been asked for a long time and has only very recently been verified. Though the full effects of geomagnetic activity are surely not known in entirety, scientists believe that their magnetism may interact or interfere with the magnetism belonging to animals and other biological creatures.

It is not news to many that migratory animals move North to South throughout their lives in order to nest, reproduce, and follow feeding routes. This is a phenomenon seen throughout the world in many climates, particularly here in Iceland where we are visited by multiple migratory species, namely puffins and whales.

As recently as 2018 scientists have begun to study the magnetism of mammals, insects, and even bacteria. There have been many theories put forth about emotional interference, different health and sleep functions, and other curiosities, but thus far these things are all still being researched.

So for now, this question stands at “True”. While we currently have no findings to prove that geomagnetic activity is harming life, we can certainly infer that a big storm may temporarily put animal navigational systems offline for a bit. And maybe us, too!

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Jonatan Pie)

9. The Northern Lights make noise

TRUE. This question has been making the rounds for years, and many aurora hunters have their own anecdotal answer. Right now, multiple branches of research are being conducted about if this is true, and if so, how?

One of the more popular theories is from a research group headed by Aalto University Professor Unto K. Laine. They’ve introduced the “inversion layer hypothesis”, which infers that sound is born through a geomagnetic storm’s interaction with our atmosphere’s inversion layer.

The charges activated by the storm cause the popping and crackling sounds that people have reported hearing during certain auroral occurrences. But this is only one of the theories, there are multiple others floating around currently being researched, many by universities.

(One of them says pine needles are to blame!) But don’t take our word for it- have you ever heard the northern lights? Let us know in the comments!

(Unsplash. Photo Credit: Shanu Nag)

10. You can photograph or film the Northern Lights with any camera

FALSE…FOR NOW. As technology advances, the answer to this question changes dramatically. Up until recently, the only way to capture the northern lights on film was to use a camera that allowed manual control.

This meant that typical point and shoot machines of the 2000-2010s, disposables, phone cameras, basic film, and nearly all auto-setting cameras were out of luck. The reason for this is not that they are necessarily lacking some feature, but more that they were using a default daylight setting array to create photos.

The settings that we use to create nighttime photos do not come naturally to the camera, as they would be challenging to use and would make it difficult for us to capture typical photos of a lit subject.

So if the tool you are using to take photos does not allow you to adjust the ISO or the shutter speed (among other things), you may find yourself with a roll of dark images!

These days, however, technology is catching up to us and many simpler photo tools (like phones) are coming prepackaged and ready with “Night mode”! This is an exciting feature that puts auroral photography into the hands of nearly any hunter, and has only been the product of the past few years!

Who knows how easy it will be to make phenomenal photos in the future?